Vice President of Global Partnerships, Sprout Social
Despite a recent rise in repercussions, brands have not backed off from being political: From 1985, when Pepsi pulled its operations out of South Africa during the apartheid era, to 1992, when Levi Strauss ceased financial support to the Boy Scouts of America over the organization’s refusal to admit gay scouts -- arguably every move a business makes is potentially a political stance.
And this is happening amid news cycles that stay alive long after the first few days of coverage. Indeed, newsworthy hashtags live on and on; and passionate citizens keep those issues alive. This is why, in the era of social media, organizations regularly contemplate how, if and when taking a stand is an appropriate course of action.
While it may seem that success in this arena is reserved for multinationals with huge P.R. staffs, you should recognize that you need not be a corporate behemoth to honor, communicate and stay true to your own company's values.
In many ways, in fact, social is the new podium for brands and people alike: A recent Sprout Social survey found that social is the place where 58 percent of consumers are most receptive to brands communicating their socio-political stances.
The message for small businesses, then, is that taking a stand on the issues that face your employees and customers is an adequate and appropriate venue for building on your reputation as a leader and developing deeper roots within your communities.
So, instead of steering clear, revisit your brand’s values online. Study and solidify them; prepare for potential reactions on all sides; and, ultimately, stay true to the message that matters.
Value your values.
An organization’s values are coded into its DNA, and that’s especially true for local and small businesses. Building a brand often starts with determining how to create an extension of those internal values to reach beyond your company walls.
So, if these challenges are where your company is at, closely examine what your brand values are before you take a stand. And, as you decide on the issues you care to speak out about, align them with your value system. The most vital move you can make when speaking out on controversial topics is understanding and empathizing about how the issue -- and your stance on it -- might affect your company’s culture and wider community.
My company's research found that the people surveyed believed brands are most credible when they take a stand on an issue that directly impacts their customers (47 percent), followed by their employees (40 percent) and, lastly, their business operations (31 percent).
The sentiment behind this data rings particularly true for small and local businesses. The more intimate your community, the more likely you are to garner the support of your customers when the cause you stand behind reflects their experience and feels particularly relevant.
When beauty brand Glossier launched a body-positivity campaign in 2017 to promote its latest body wash, Body Hero, its values of celebrating authentic, natural beauty shone.
The brand’s social platforms highlighted a range of different women, different body types and different backgrounds, ringing true to founder and CEO Emily Weiss’s mission to create a beauty line for real girls, in real life.
Social media is the best place for statements like this to happen in 2018. Compared to other primary communication channels like television, phones or blogs, the largest number of consumers (58 percent) in our survey were receptive to brands communicating their positions/values on social media
Listen before speaking out.
Aligning your brand to a cause means offering more than occasional lip service. While delivering an exceptional product or service is paramount, taking a stand becomes a mission with an even greater purpose. Any business looking to publicly share its values and perspective needs to listen carefully to its community.
Societal and political conversations extending well beyond your brand are happening daily across social media and other communications channels. So, leverage the power of social listening to explore and identify trends and common views expressed by your community. This will help you leverage the causes that already resonate with your audience, setting a baseline for potential reactions and taking its members' pulse, to enable you to prepare and plan communications and campaigns accordingly.
Don't limit your listening to just social media, either: Employee discussions, customer-focus groups and other methods can augment the unfiltered feedback social provides. This doesn’t mean you must take action if you think people will only agree, but it gives you a helpful sense of their thinking.
Prepare for all voices, across channels.
No matter how authentic and well-reasoned your approach, taking a stand will result in opposing views, and possibly even backlash. In an era when civil discourse and nuanced conversations have waned, this is where opportunity exists.
Receiving opposing viewpoints is not a bad thing, nor should it deter you. Healthy and respectful dialogue is an important opportunity for you to share your views as a brand and can strengthen your community. And taking a stand on social is a human, vulnerable moment; people will often respond to and respect the strength that it takes.
More and more brands are addressing complex socio-political issues publicly. Perhaps no brand has epitomized this more than Starbucks, which over the past decade has repeatedly waded into politically charged conversations. Last year, when CEO Howard Schultz announced, in an open letter to staff, plans to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years, the social realm erupted.
As a small business, you may not have the power to hire 10,000 people to back your cause, but the way the coffee brand committed to its pledge despite social backlash and the virality of hashtags like #BoycottStarbucks, remains an applicable lesson for brands.
Given the expansive reach and speed of information across social, having a strategy, as Starbucks did, in place to respond to both supportive and critical responses is crucial. Without first strategizing your fundamental rationale, explaining yourself after the fact can seem like simply making excuses. This is important, because as a small business, the reactions and responses you give may carry over to customer channels and in-person experiences.
So prepare by training and empowering your front-line communicators, your social team members who monitor and post on your social platforms and customer service channels.
Such advance preparation will ensure your team feels supported and equipped to engage in controversial conversations in real time. Remember: Your staff's focus should be on your brand’s values, and keeping things authentic and consistent.
Honor the process and people.
Addressing sensitive topics also means remaining thoughtful and exercising caution. That is easier said than done when you’re in the heat of a political moment -- and on fast-moving channels like Twitter. Approaching every interaction with respect and realistic expectations will encourage positive behavior.
If your business is committed to taking a stand based on the values you’ve established and celebrate, be sure to stay true to that heart that drives your business in the first place.